The story behind Keith Haring’s subversive Berlin Wall mural

Keith Haring in front of his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986
Keith Haring in front of his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986

Introduction

As an outspoken social rights activist, Keith Haring was not one to shy away from controversy. His Berlin Wall Mural is just that – controversial and provocative. In fact, Haring himself told The New York Times1 that the mural was a “subversive” act that was meant to make a political statement, and help on a psychological level destroy the Berlin Wall.

Mesmerizing, conspicuous and intriguing, the Berlin Wall Mural was a masterpiece that helped put both street art and Keith Haring on the map. It took Haring about 6 hours to complete painting the mural over a yellow background a team had applied the previous day. The mural itself was commissioned by Checkpoint Charlie2 Museum’s director, Rainer Hildebrandt.

Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986
Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986

Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986
Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986

Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986
Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986

Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986
Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986

Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986
Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986
Photo: Heinz J. Kuzdas

Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986
Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986

Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986
Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986

Berlin Wall Mural, 1986

Keith Haring’s Berlin Wall Mural spread over across a 300m long portion of the 100-mile Berlin Wall3 (the ‘Berliner Mauer’). The project was highly publicized and equally risky for Haring. The mural was composed of human figures who were interlinked at their feet and their hands. Of course, the interconnected human symbols were designed to signify the quest for unity of people, as opposed to the idea of constructing such an obtrusive wall. The choice of colors used by Haring matched those found in the German flag: yellow (representing gold), red and black.

Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986
Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986

Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986
Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986

Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986
Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986

Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986
Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986
Photo: Vladimir Sichov

Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986
Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986

The destruction of the painting

Unfortunately, the 300-meter stretch Haring had painted the mural was vandalized, destroyed and painted over by other artists by the time the wall came down on 9 November 1991. Although the actual mural is no longer there, Keith Haring is often given credit for agitating for free movement of East Berliners to the Federal Republic of West Germany.

Keith Haring - Berlin Wall Mural, 1986, photo Heinz J. Kuzdas
Keith Haring – Berlin Wall Mural, 1986
Photo: Heinz J. Kuzdas

Keith Haring - Berlin Wall Mural, 1986, The Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie, 1987
The Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie with Keith Haring’s mural, 1987

About the artist

Born Keith Allen Haring in 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Keith Haring was one of the most prolific American pop artists. His paintings grew out of the NYC street culture of the 1980s. He was a painter, a street artist, a social rights activist and an avid HIV/AIDS awareness movement advocate, all wrapped into one. He was known for whipping up colorful and artistic murals on New York streets, subway stations and even cars. Funny enough, he was famous for referring to the subways as his “lab.” Since the early 1980s, Haring started organizing exhibitions at the popular Club 574.

Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986t
Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986

Video: Short interview with Keith Haring in front of the Berlin Wall

51sec

Location: Checkpoint Charlie


Painting does no longer exist
Friedrichstraße 43-45, 10117 Berlin, Germany
The portion of the Berlin Wall painted by Haring was located to the right of the entrance to the border crossing Friedrichstraße, Checkpoint Charlie

Keith Haring painting his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986
Keith Haring in front of his Berlin Wall Mural, 1986

Checkpoint Charlie was the gateway between East Germany and West Germany during the Cold War.
Checkpoint Charlie was the gateway between East Germany and West Germany during the Cold War.

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was demolished
West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall early 11 November 1989 as they watch East German border guards demolishing a section of the wall in order to open a new crossing point between East and West Berlin, near the Potsdamer Square. Two days before, Gunter Schabowski, the East Berlin Communist party boss, declared that starting from midnight, East Germans would be free to leave the country, without permission, at any point along the border, including the crossing-points through the Wall in Berlin. The Berlin concrete wall was built by the East German government in August 1961 to seal off East Berlin from the part of the city occupied by the three main Western powers to prevent mass illegal immigration to the West. According to the “August 13 Association” which specialises in the history of the Berlin Wall, at least 938 people – 255 in Berlin alone – died, shot by East German border guards, attempting to flee to West Berlin or West Germany
Photo: GERARD MALIE/AFP/Getty Images

On November 15, 1989, a man photographed the opposite world through the gap in the Berlin Wall
On November 15, 1989, a man photographed the opposite world through the gap in the Berlin Wall

Other important works

Related readings

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/1986/10/24/arts/keith-haring-paints-mural-on-berlin-wall.html
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Checkpoint_Charlie
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Wall
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Club_57

 

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